We’ve seen it a bunch of times before: A film acquired by Netflix performs well, and the streaming service commissions a series based vaguely on the concept. “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” led to David Gelb heading up “Chef’s Table.” “Wet Hot American Summer” begat “First Day of Camp.” And the 2015 documentary “Hot Girls Wanted” now brings us “Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On.”
Created by Ronna Gradus, Jill Bauer, and Rashida Jones, this documentary series is (despite the title) not all that explicit. It is, however, deeply embedded in the idea that human beings like to have sex, and thus exploring the ways in which technology and commerce have become embedded in that basic biological urge.
Four of the first season’s six episodes focus on sex as an act with a transactional element (y’know, for cash), but there’s still a pretty wide range of points of view, from traditional porn to other venues. From an entrepreneurial cam girl to a black porn actor driven by industry demand to perform uncomfortable scenes to the first woman to shoot erotic photos for Playboy, “Turned On” tracked down some fascinating people to feature within the industry.
And that basic fact adds a lot to the series, which is prudish at times with its subject matter (the show rarely features a scene that couldn’t air on basic cable in the year 2017) but thus allows the focus to veer away from titillation toward enlightenment.
And this is entirely thanks to the choice of subjects selected to profile. So many documentaries live or die by who gets featured, and the producers here have a talent for finding people you want to watch on camera, talking about their choices and revealing their inner selves in the process. Even folks you wouldn’t exactly want to have dinner with (like a porn agent who’s incapable of wearing an outfit that doesn’t have the word “porn” on it, including a baseball cap that reads PORN in gold embossed letters) prove fascinating to a degree.
The point of view is decidedly focused on how these people feel about the role sex plays in their lives, for better or for worse. It’s hard not to read “Women on Top,” the first episode, as a direct response to the criticism the original film received for its relatively negative take on how “cam girls” are treated. That episode, directed by Jones, is perhaps the standout of the season, thanks to how dynamic and charming its subjects (a mother-daughter duo dedicated to creating quality erotic content, and an inspirationally vibrant director of explicit female-driven fantasy scenes) prove to be, and is probably the most sex-positive of the bunch.
However, there are other episodes that probably won’t please anyone who is truly passionate about positive portrayals of sex work on screen. However, that’s because even while the subjects talk a big game about loving their work, the intimacy of the series draws out all of their inner conflicts.
And that’s good. After all, a feminist discussion of porn should never be an easy one, because on a basic level sex is such a complicated topic. Who’s on top? Who’s on the bottom? What specifically takes a theoretically natural act and ties it up in social constructs and technological complications and medical concerns? This is a field with a lot of issues to explore, even before you bring in issues of gender, but “Hot Girls Wanted” is willing to dig in fearlessly. You might not see a lot of boobs, but plenty else gets exposed.
What doesn’t quite work are the two episodes that focus on how sex and technology combine outside of the adult entertainment world. “Love Me Tinder” profiles James, a former “Big Brother” contestant living it up on dating apps but finding that it depersonalizes sex for him, and while it’s a pretty stark portrait of that reality, it’s hard to dig up much sympathy for the guy. And “Don’t Stop Filming,” the final episode, focuses on a teenager who faces being labeled a sex criminal because she Periscoped a friend’s rape. It’s definitely not a boring story, but its horrors feel out of sync with the rest of the narrative constructed here.
Because there is something resembling a narrative, or at least a picture being painted — one that will definitely generate discussion — because the series’ villain isn’t sex but technology. That’s also pretty triggering, to a degree, but it does represent a commitment to understanding how connection works, in this day and age. Sex can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, after all, but connection is definitely one of the major ones. And on camera or off, anyone human can relate.